Masked by Virtue

July 19, 2020 at 11:22 am

It’s been a crazy year by all accounts. We’re trying to manage a global pandemic. Cops killed yet another unarmed black man unleashing a new wave of protests across the country. Millions are unemployed due to economic shutdown and socially isolated due to COVID-19 mitigation measures. It’s an odd time.

Unfortunately, I’m finding that the increased stress and angst is bringing the worst out in some people. Our society has been unduly politicized. Seemingly non-political topics have taken on a stereotyped political identity. State governments across the country have enacted emergency declarations, taking on special powers to dictate personal behavior in response to the pandemic. The governor can now decree which businesses may operate, and how they must operate upon threat of government sanctions. Some states have ordered all citizens to wear a face covering when outside of their homes. Research indicates that face masks and “social distancing” are effective in reducing the spread of germs. I don’t dispute this. I do take issue with it being mandated, and I take issue with the toxic, politically motivated response. This is a discussion I’ve tried to have on social media a couple of times, but it’s just not a good venue for getting my thoughts in order.

Predictably, like everything else, mask wearing immediately became a left/right dichotomy. Those on the “right” see it as an infringement on personal liberty (I believe the mandate is), and taunt and ridicule the “sheep” who comply (I personally don’t, and disagree with doing so). Those on the “left” see it as a social responsibility to follow the rules to protect ones neighbors and castigate those who don’t wear a mask as uncaring, inhuman and unintelligent.

Both sides are wrong – at least in part.

The “right” are correct to buck against the mandate as it is an infringement of personal liberty. However, they are wrong to dismiss masks as useless or to fall for some cockeyed conspiracy theory. Individuals of a conservative or libertarian persuasion generally agree that personal liberties are legitimate until they come into conflict with those of someone else. This applies to mask usage as much as anything. If the individuals you wish to interact with have a preference for mask usage, you should meet them on an even footing and wear one. If you choose not to, you have no right to compel them to engage with you. Granted, the mandate muddies this. Instead of free individuals choosing what is best for themselves in commerce with one another, government intrusion makes this an awkward negotiation to navigate.

The “left” is correct in their insistence that mask usage slows the spread of pathogens. However they are wrong to dismiss the concerns of government overreach. They are wrong to equate mandated mask usage with virtue, and they are wrong to seek to force others to do what they believe is correct.

Those who embrace mask usage seem to see it as a virtuous, selfless act for the benefit of the rest of society, since it’s billed as protecting others – not yourself. At the same time, they take the self-interested position of demonizing those who do not wear masks because they believe those people are putting them at risk. The result is an attempt to force compliance with their own “virtuous” mask-wearing behavior.

Can an act be virtuous if there was no choice in it? Aristotle in Nicomachean Ethics argues that virtue is a state of character specifically dependent on choice. In fact, he defines virtue as a “mean” – the point of balance – between extremes. Our ability to make the virtuous choice has been taken from us by mandate, while the very same mandated behavior is being sold to us as virtuous. This incongruity bothers me. This is the point at which some readers will lose patience with me (assuming they made it this far). “What does it matter? Just wear a mask!!” Well, it matters because I believe it is the duty of each of us to strive after what will make us the best we can each be. I believe in the pursuit of virtue and of the virtuous – or “good” – life. Further, I believe we can only step closer to that goal by having the choice to do what is counter to it. When my agency is taken from me, and I am left with no choice to make, or at least my well of choice is poisoned, it does not count toward this end goal of virtue. Doing the virtuous thing is not virtuous if it is forced. Granted, the end result may be the same vis-à-vis protecting others from germs, but an important component has been lost; the desire and conscious choice to do what is right. Forcing individuals to do right actions does not make them good. Individuals choosing the right action does, or at least is a step on that path.

This isn’t a new struggle for me. I have this same indictment against all attempts to force virtuous behavior on individuals, whether it’s in the form of “sin” taxes, “blue laws”, prohibition of sex work, or drug use. Any prohibition of a potentially self-damaging behavior is a missed opportunity to act virtuously and become a better person.

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